How We Nearly Doubled Our Lifespans Since the Last Pandemic.

May 24, 2021

How We Nearly Doubled Our Lifespans Since the Last Pandemic.

May 29, 2023

For the next week leading up to the U.S. Memorial Day, I’m going to riff on the subject of aging in the 21st century. We have four times as many people on the planet today compared to a century ago. It’s not because humans are having more children. It’s because we’re living longer.

But, if you looked at the world during the Great Influenza ("the Spanish flu") back in 1918, you wouldn’t have expected what we’re seeing today. While we’ve had more than 3 million people die from Covid-19, the world once saw what’s estimated to be nearly 100 million people die during the last pandemic. In many countries, one out of every ten to twenty people died from H1N1.

This was all captured in a lengthy recent New York Times story, "How Humanity Gave Itself an Extra Life." (You might also enjoy this NYT magazine story entitled, "How Long Can We Live?") Here’s a passage:

“One strange thing about the story of global life expectancy is how steady the number was for almost the entirety of human history. Until the middle of the 18th century, the figure appears to have rarely exceeded a ceiling of about 35 years, rising or falling with a good harvest or a disease outbreak but never showing long-term signs of improvement. A key factor keeping average life expectancy low was the shockingly high rates of infant and childhood mortality: Two in five children perished before reaching adulthood. Human beings had spent 10,000 years inventing agriculture, gunpowder, double-entry accounting, perspective in painting — but these undeniable advances in collective human knowledge failed to move the needle in one critical category: how long the average person could expect to live.”

The last time we saw a significant reversal in global life expectancy was from 1916 to 1920 (except for World War II). We’ve doubled lifespan in the past century. And this increase in population and industrialization of the world is what has brought us face-to-face with our 21st-century existential crisis: global warming. Let’s hope that we can bring the same innovation and adaptive behavior to our world today—to apply scientific and technological innovation we’ve used to extend our lives in the past century to the needs of our planet and ourselves.

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